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Where Has Our Ability to Empathize Gone?
Excerpted from my August 2, 2012 show on A Fine Time for Healing, Is Our Ability to Empathize Eroding?
Written by Randi G. Fine
Empathy is the ability to emotionally put oneself into someone else’s shoes—the capacity to share and understand the feelings, emotions, and perspective experienced by another person, both negative and positive. Empathy is the identification and relationship that connects us as human beings.
We show empathy through statements such as, “I can see you are really uncomfortable about this,” and “I can understand why you would be upset.” We show empathy through a hug, a reassuring touch, and even through a “high five” when our empathy relates to someone’s success.
Empathy is not the same emotion as sympathy. Where empathy allows us to vicariously experience and identify with other’s feelings, sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for the feelings of others. With empathy we feel with someone else, with sympathy we feel for someone else.
There are many theories concerning the nature versus nurture aspect of empathic development. Are some people born virtuous and some people born evil?
Dr. Paul Zak has studied the biological basis of good versus evil behavior over a number of years and has made a very interesting discovery. He found that when people feel for other people, the stress triggers the brain to release a chemical called oxytocin. Likewise, a study at Berkely concluded that a particular variant of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with the trait of human empathy. In the study, those who had this gene variant were found to have a more empathic nature. Dr. Zak says that this study demonstrates that some people, about five percent of our population, may have a gene variant that makes them less empathic. In other words, he says, some people are more or less immune to oxytocin.
So there is scientific evidence that the goodness trait is encoded in our genes. But nature is not the only influencing factor. We may be born with the capacity to have empathy, but our ability to apply it, to care and understand, is a learned behavior.
Social psychologists say that empathetic behavior is built from the secure attachment babies develop with their parents or primary caregivers, and by modeling their parents’ empathetic behavior towards them and others. Sincere empathetic behavior develops in children whose parents constantly show, teach, and reinforce it. It is a gradual emergence that occurs with the consistency and caring shown to them during the formative years of their social and emotional development. In many cases, but not all, adults who lack empathy have been victims of childhood abuse or neglect.
Those who have had extremely painful childhoods, ones that have involved emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, often lose touch with their own feelings while shutting themselves off from the pain. Their underdeveloped coping skills leave them saddled with distress, whether their own or others, and their lack of ability to experience their own pain prevents them from feeling the pain of others. As adults their elaborately built defense mechanisms block guilt and shame while also blocking their conscience. They live life through fear, threats, punishment, and isolation rather than empathy and kindness.
In many cases the opposite is true—the person over-identifies with others’ pain, is overwhelmed by it, and becomes overly empathetic to the point that they absorb the feelings of everyone around them. Their internal pain and suffering is triggered when they see others in pain and suffering, therefore become preoccupied with everyone else’s pain and make it their own. I did that for most of my life. Often it was to deflect my own pain but ironically it caused me to suffer more. I had very poor coping skills and my boundaries were out of whack if existent at all. I also modeled the behavior I observed as a child.
I do think that overall, my generation, a generation that relied on human interaction, a generation where families visited relatives and friends every Sunday because there was nothing else to do, is more empathetic than the generations that have followed.
In fact, an eye opening new study presented by University of Michigan researchers at an Association for psychological science annual meeting claims that college students who started school after the year 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than students thirty years prior. The sharpest drop occurred in the last nine years. The study includes data from over 14,000 students.
One reason that this is happening is because students are becoming more self-oriented as their world becomes increasingly more competitive. Some say that social networking is creating a more narcissistic generation. According to lead researchers, it is harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social interactions are done through a computer or cell phone and not through real life interaction. With their friends online they can pick and choose who they will respond to and who they will tune out. That is more than likely to carry over into real life.
This is also a generation that grew up playing video games. Much of their formative years development has been influenced by input from computer generated images and violent cyber-interactions. There has to be a connection. This may partly explain the numbing of this generation.
Another point of view was presented by Christopher Lasch, a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic, in a book he published in 1979 called, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Lasch links the prevalence of narcissism in our society to the decline of the family unit, loss of core values, and long-term social disintegration in the twentieth century.
He believed that the liberal, utopian lifestyle of the 60’s gave way to a search for personal growth in the 70’s. But people were unsuccessful in their attempts to find their selves. So a movement began to build a society that celebrated self-expression, self-esteem, and self-love. That’s all well and good, or so it seems, but as a result of the “me” focus, more narcissism was inadvertently created. It all backfired–aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values have been the result.
There are certainly many of us who have not become this way—studies speak for society in general.
Today we live with constant internal and external pressures of life. On a daily basis our society faces terrorism, crime, economic crises, widespread job insecurity, war, political corruption. We see the disintegration of morality wherever we look.
As a writer, author, and inspirer I was greatly disturbed by the overwhelming success of a book (I will not promote the name except to say that it has the word “gray” in the title) based on pornography and smut. It astounds me that millions of people have read it. My publisher would have instantly rejected a manuscript of such low moral content and offensive subject matter. Where has our appreciation for quality literature as a society gone to?
And what has happened to our legal system? It has been demonstrated time and time again that the rights of the innocent take a back seat to the rights of the offender. Our laws do very little to control criminals. In fact, it seems as if criminals control the law. If ever an empathy disorder could spur unthinkable violence to erupt in a seemingly normal person, now is the time.
Scientists have studied empathy from many approaches and together have found both physiological and psychological roots for it. Since humans are composed of body, mind, and soul, that makes perfect sense. Many things influence our behaviors.
Simon Baron-Cohen, a developmental psychopathology and autism expert, researched the genetic and environmental aspects of empathy back in the 60’s. He was curious as to why some people lack empathy in their dealings with others. His book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty is an expose of his opinions, personal experiences, and findings. The object of the book is to present a way of understanding why people do bad things. Through his book he explains away the intangible concept of evil and explores a more explainable theory—the theory that there are levels of empathy and they lie within a spectrum.
Baron-Cohen says that a person’s level of empathy comes from an empathy circuit lying deep within the brain. The function of this circuit determines where a person falls within the empathy spectrum. He measures a person’s level of empathy by degrees, six degrees being a high functioning empathy circuit and zero degrees a low functioning one.
He classifies people who have psychopathic and narcissistic personality disorders, those who lack the ability to feel others’ feelings and cannot self-regulate their treatments of others, as zero-negative.
The best and most common way that empathy is assessed, with empathy defined as “the reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another,” is through a questionnaire called The Interpersonal Reactivity Index. The questionnaire uses 5-point scales (A = does not describe me well to E = describes me very well). This scale is used to evaluate a person’s perspective of his or herself.
There are four categories of assessment. The first category is Fantasy, as in the statement, “When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me. The second category is Perspective-taking, as in the statement “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.” The third category is empathetic concern, as in the statement, “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.” And the fourth category is personal distress, as in the statement, “When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces.”
Since empathy begins with awareness of another person’s feelings and receptiveness to the subtle cues that others give off, which happen to be abilities that women are naturally adept at, females generally score higher on these types of tests.
Those who have experienced the widest range of emotions and those who are most in touch with their feelings are also more able to empathize with what others feel. These people are not typically a threat to society. But there are also those who are completely devoid of empathy. These are the people that are dangers to our society. They are ticking time bombs that may explode at any time.